Q&A: Motivating a child to use minority language & using different languages with siblings

by | Mar 19, 2015 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Siblings | 7 comments


My daughter is 2.5 yrs. I have only spoken to her in Spanish her whole life (we live in the US) her mother, a stay-at-home mom, only speaks English. If I press her, she will speak in Spanish, but she always responds in English unless I refuse to listen unless she says it in Spanish.

Also, I would like to teach my kids Portuguese, but my wife thinks speaking to them in Spanish and Portuguese will confuse them because they are similar. I wanted to talk to my daughter in Spanish and my 1 yr old son in Portuguese, but my wife didn’t want that because she wanted them to be able to talk to each other in the same language. Will it help them both learn Portuguese and Spanish if I do one language per kid? or should I just do both Spanish and Portuguese to both… like maybe picking one day a week to speak only Portuguese?



Hello Michael,

Thank you for your question. If I understand correctly, you are seeking to resolve two separate issues in your family’s multilingual plan:
1. Your 2 1/2 year old daughter doesn’t respond in the target language (Spanish) and prefers to speak in the community language (English).
2. You would like to teach your 2 1/2 year old daughter and 1-year-old son an additional language: Portuguese.

Let me address the first issue first. It is quite common for children to have a strong preference for the community language. Most children want to be the same as their peers and although your daughter is very young, she seems to have picked up on cues that tell her that English is the community language. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, must have a great deal of influence on your children as she likely spends entire days with them. Does your wife speak Spanish? What is her feeling towards raising your children bilingually (English and Spanish)? If she speaks Spanish, would she be willing to also speak Spanish to your children? In this way, you could achieve teaching the minority language (Spanish) in the home and the children would still learn the community language (English) through very little efforts of your own. It is good to encourage children to speak the target language, but be careful not to be too strict. Children should be free to express themselves in the language they feel most comfortable in. Try reading books in Spanish with both your children, play silly games or sing songs in Spanish to make it fun and you might just be surprised at your children’s increasing desire to express themselves in Spanish. Your son is still very young and might not speak yet, but these are the golden moments to help prepare him for when he will say his first words!

Now about the second issue… I am curious to know why you would like to teach your children Portuguese. Is it one of your heritage languages? (I am assuming that Spanish is one of your heritage languages.) It’s important to examine your own motivation for wanting to transmit another language as well as evaluate your own proficiency in the language. Do you speak Portuguese fluently? As I mentioned earlier, as children grow they pick up cues that tell them what the community language is and it usually becomes their language of choice. It is very likely that your children will speak to each other in English. And I wonder, does your wife speak Portuguese? The answer to this question should also help guide you as to how to proceed. If your wife doesn’t speak Portuguese, how will you make sure that she feels included in conversations with your children? I would personally discourage one language per child as I feel it would create a fragmented structure for communicating within your family, especially if your wife doesn’t speak one or both of these languages. If you wish to introduce Portuguese, I would recommend following your own idea of choosing a time or place to speak Portuguese: a specific day of the week, a certain time of the day (bedtime or bathtime, for example) or in a specific area in the house (a language corner, for example, filled with books and toys in Portuguese). Even though your children might not achieve the same level of proficiency as in English or Spanish, teaching them a third language would be beneficial for them, opening their worlds and their minds to yet another language and culture!

I hope these basic guidelines will help you to establish a family language plan and that you will enjoy your multilingual journey!

Please don’t hestitate to write again.

Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Helena Virtanen-Pienemann

    Just a brief comment on the first issue of a child refusing to speak the minority language in the family:
    We are a trilingual family speaking Finnish, German and English. When our two boys were growing up we lived in an English speaking country both parents speaking their native languages to the children (one parent-one language-approach). The older child used to be very strict with his three languages and insisted using them in every situation to the parents. The younger one only spoke English, but the parents kept using their mother tongues to him. The children spoke to each other in English. This way we had a cross-language communication over ten years. To our surprise the younger child only needed a few days longer than his brother to get fluent in both minority languages when visiting Finland and Germany. Now as a teenager he and his older brother are both fluent trilinguals and proud of it.

    • Maria (Trilingual Mama)

      Hello Helena!
      Thank you for your wonderful input, it’s always nice to hear from families who have experienced similar challenges but have come out successful in the end! I think you were wise to not to try to force him to speak. We need to be respectful of our children’s different personalities and different approaches to language learning. What a beautiful surprise it must have been for you. Congratulations on your trilingual young men!

    • Rita

      Kiitos, Helena! Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story. It is so important to share encouraging examples such as yours. The proof is in the pudding, and yours have turned out perfect!

  2. Michael Dennis

    Thanks for the response. To answer some of your questions. My wife understands Spanish, but doesn’t speak it, she is too timid she’ll be bad at it and she doesn’t speak Portuguese. That being said, she totally loves the idea of raising them bilingually and encourages it. Actually, Spanish and Portuguese are not heritage languages for me, but I am fluent in them. I am simply fluent in them as I have an ability to learn languages quickly and they happen to be similar so the jump wasn’t very difficult. my motivation for teaching Portuguese was just a love for other languages and that it wasn’t a big jump from Spanish and I know languages are the easiest, most fun way to enter another culture.

    I currently sing and read all the time in Spanish and my kids and if I pause, my daughter can finish the lines of the song in Spanish. In truth, her daily speech is sprinkled with Spanish words and on weekends when I don’t work, I notice she uses more Spanish than normal, b/c we are able to spend more time together. I will think about the Portuguese one day a week thing. Thanks again for the feedback.

    • Maria (Trilingual Mama)

      Hello again Michael,
      Thanks for responding with the answers to your questions which I hope have helped you to see your situation more clearly. It sounds like you are already doing a fantastic job and if I could offer one more piece of advice, it would be to perservere! Your children will no doubt thank you for the wonderful gift you are passing onto them. Please write us again in a few months to tell us how things are working out with the Portuguese!
      Maria Babin

  3. Ricki

    Hi guys, I’m very grateful to have come across your site and well done for doing a great job.
    I’m a Pacific Islander living in NZ and married to a NZ european. We have a 1 year old that I only speak in my native language to. I have also started learning mandarin and would like your opinion if I was to speak in mandarin to my son as well. How many languages can I teach a toddler at a time do you think?

    • Maria Babin

      Hello Ricki,
      Thank you very much for the nice compliment!
      It’s wonderful that you are speakng your native language to your son! Is your spouse speaking another language to him? Is it different from the community language?
      Yes, I believe that you can introduce him to another language, but I would opt to do it a little at a time. Perhaps you could choose a time of the day or a specific day in the week where you focus on Mandarin? Another idea would be to create a language corner in your home that would be dedicated specifically to this additional language. Here is a post that you can read for additional info: http://www.trilingualmama.com/a-language-corner-for-teaching-a-foreign-language-in-the-home/


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